Listening Suggestions for Young Pianists I: Studio Enrichment Activity

Ruth Laredo plays Schumann “A Curious Story”

Valentina Lisitsa plays Beethoven “Für Elise” as an encore after her concerto performance
Mao Fujita plays the first movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, K 545
Frederic Chiu plays Prokofiev’s Tarantella in D minor
Evgeny Kissin plays the famous Chopin “Minute” Waltz in D-flat Major, Op 64, No 1
Daniil Trifonov plays the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini for piano and orchestra
Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe play their arrangement of Papageno’s aria from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute

Meet the great pianists: Murray Perahia

Murray Perahia is a pianist synonymous with exemplary musicianship informed by scholarly understanding and graced by heartfelt expressiveness. His name is widely associated with the music of Mozart because of his recordings of the complete piano concerti, which he conducted from the keyboard, but his extensive discography encompasses the entire piano repertoire, from Bach, Beethoven, Brahms to Chopin, Schubert, Schumann and beyond, and his recordings have have won countless awards.

He is beloved of audiences around the world. Perahia was the first major concert pianist I heard in recital, when I was growing up in Chicago. That entire performance was unforgettable to me because every note was played with such understanding and expression.

Above his lyrical reading of Chopin’s Nocturne in F Major Op 15, No 1, and below, his audio recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 23 in A Major, K 488:

Meet the great pianists: Evgeny Kissin

It would not be hyperbole to say that the Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin is a genius. He gave his first concerto performance at age 10, and his recording of the two Chopin concertos when only twelve years old is still widely distributed and admired. In the video clip above, he is just 13 years old, playing a demanding program of works by Chopin with effortless ease and exemplary musicianship. You can hear various mazurkas and nocturnes, the celebrated Scherzo in B-flat minor, Op 31 and the great Fantaisie in F minor, Op 49.

Now in his fifties, Kissin is the rare prodigy that has grown into a mature pianist and is widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. His performances have an incredible visceral excitement that is unusual in the classical world. I remember one performance I had the privilege to attend which ended with seven extraordinary encores, the audience jumping to their feet, clapping wildly and cheering themselves hoarse all the way. This second video excerpt below gives an idea of the intensity that makes Kissin such an astounding and electrifying performer. He plays Prokofiev’s “La Suggestion Diabolique.”

Meet the great pianists: Yeol-Eum Son

Korean pianist Yeol-Eum Son came to the attention of piano lovers worldwide when she won silver medals at two of the most rigorous and prestigious piano competitions in the world: the Van Cliburn International Competition in 2009, and the Tschaikowsky International Competition in 2011. She now has an important international career as a soloist and chamber musician with recordings and even a newspaper column and book.

Her graceful personality, effortless technique and gorgeous tone, together with her incredible musicianship make her a delight to hear. Her repertoire spans all the standard classical piano repertoire and also includes the most challenging contemporary works for piano. She make all of it seem effortless and musically satisfying.

Above she presents a colorful and affecting reading of one of the great virtuoso favorites, Liszt’s “La Campanella” (The Bells) . (In the opening exchange, she is soliciting the audience’s request for her encore.) In the second video below, she performs a spectacular Mendelssohn Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor Op 25 with Jonathan Heyward and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Are you a conductor?

Music for the piano has a unique quality. Along with the organ, it is one of very few instruments that can present music that would otherwise require a whole ensemble of players. The piano can handle two part inventions, three part fugues, four part fugues, even five and six part fugues! Composers have transcribed the music of string quartets and full orchestras for the piano.

Of course it is not always physically possible, even with ten fingers (and possibly two feet for the organ) to play every independent musical line that would be played by a dozen instrumental groups in an orchestra…but the piano can convincingly create the effect of a large ensemble in a way that melodic instruments cannot even begin to dream of doing on their own.

So what does that mean about how you should think about piano music and playing the piano? Obviously, if you want to play several independent musical ideas at the same time, you have to have full control of your fingers. But even more importantly, you have to have the capacity to recognize and follow all of these musical layers as you play. Your job is rather like that of the conductor of a symphony orchestra in that respect. But it also has the added dimension that you are the one playing as well as directing!

It can be so tempting for pianists to revel in all the notes they get to play and pound them out as fast and furious as possible. It is easy to impress people this way, but if you want to make your piano playing meaningful and beautiful, think like a conductor.

Imagine what instruments are playing each of the musical textures that you find on the page. Is that melody an airy flute solo or a throaty saxophone wail? Is there a viola solo hidden in the inner voices, waiting to burst out for its moment in the limelight? Exactly how loud should those cellos be playing the bass line? And like a conductor, you must coordinate your musicians and get them to play precisely together. And help them find the architecture in the music. Then, when you have done that and are aware of all the layers that make up the music, you will have the freedom to be spontaneous and expressive as you play.

Video and Audio Files

Ms Hwang’s 2023 organ recital at St Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in Shoreline. Music of Buxtehude, Bach, Langlais, Boulanger, Bolcom and Smetana. Go to the 51:30 minute mark to hear an organ transcription of Smetana’s orchestral tone poem “The Moldau.”

Piano solo

Berceuse by Frédéric Chopin, Una Hwang, piano

Jeux d’eau by Maurice Ravel; Una Hwang, piano. In recital at First Lutheran Church, Tacoma, July 26 2017.

Collaborative piano

“Precious Lord” by Tommy Dorsey; Mel Butler, viola, with Una Hwang, piano. July 2021.

“GREEN” (Ariettes Oubliées, No 5) by Claude Debussy (text by Paul Verlaine); Melissa Fontaine, soprano, with Una Hwang, piano. In recital at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, November 21, 2014.
“Come Ready and See Me” by Richard Hundley (text by James Purdy); Melissa Fontaine, soprano, with Una Hwang, piano. In recital at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, November 21, 2014.
Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky; Melissa Fontaine, soprano, with Una Hwang, piano. In recital at Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma, November 21, 2014.

Organ solo

Lumière (Sept Meditations sur le Saint-Esprit, Op 6, No 7) by Jeanne Demessieux; Una Hwang, Möller organ. In recital at First Lutheran Church, Tacoma, July 6 2016.
Finale. Allegro assai vivace (Sonata No 1 in F minor) by Felix Mendelssohn; Una Hwang, Fritts Op 6 organ at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle.
“Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” BWV 659 by J S Bach; Una Hwang, Fritts Op 6 organ at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle.
Festive Trumpet Tune by David German; Una Hwang, Fritts Op 6 organ at Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle.

Musical Artistry Program 2019

Four of our students participated in the Musical Artistry Program adjudications this year. I was proud of each and every one of them! Thank you, Audrey, Karis, Aubren, and Mary Boyde for all your hard work!

Our adjudicator, Dr Debra Bakland, was formerly professor of piano at Burman University in Canada and Walla Walla University. She is a distinguished piano performer and pedagogue in the northwest. She praised all our pianists and chose Aubren to play her Bach Two-Part Invention in A minor for the honors recital. Mary Boyde is the alternate recitalist for her rendition of Khachaturian’s “The Horseman.” Congratulations, Aubren and Mary Boyde! 

Dr Bakland also gave both Audrey and Karis Honorable Mentions. Congratulations!  Good job everyone!!

The story in your music

Music has the power to heal.  The other day I had a terrible headache and an upset stomach just before a rehearsal.  I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the rehearsal, but as it went on and I gave my attention to the music, I soon felt perfectly well.  People have known of the healing power of music and used music in this way throughout the ages, and yet, not all music heals.  What makes the difference between music that does nothing for us, or perhaps just dazzles us for a moment by its technical brilliance, and music that truly touches and heals our hearts and bodies?

It literally may have something to do with the beating of our hearts and the rhythm of our breath.  A beloved mentor of mine often used to hear me play and told me in his kindly way that I played too fast.  “Una,” he’d ask, “have you heard of tempo ordinario?  It’s about 60 beats to the quarter note…similar to your heartbeat.”  I sensed that there was something to this, but at the time, I argued back that everyone had a different heartbeat.  Of course that is true, but then again, we all know that a fast heartbeat and a short breath can be indicative of health problems or stress!  Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate more and more how important these ideas of the pulse and the “right” tempo really are.

Music is compelling when it tells us a story, though usually it is a story that unfolds without words.  When our breath and our pulse lock in with that of the music, we follow it with our full consciousness the way we follow a well-told story or a gripping movie.  This kind of immersion involves the entire brain–the analytic left side, the intuitive right side, and also the visceral brain, the seat of your emotions.

The physician John Diamond, in his book Your Body Doesn’t Lie, cited a survey of orchestra conductors and noted how long-lived they tended to be, and how they remained active and energetic to an advanced age.  He believes this is because they involved themselves primarily with the pulse of the music, and that they thereby reaped the benefits of rejuvenation and longevity from doing so.  Whether you aspire to live into your second century or not, let your music have a pulse and a breath that is harmonious with your body’s pulse and breath….and a story that comes from within you.

Orchestral Recital Series 2017

Last May, our studio participated for the first time in Tacoma’s wonderful Orchestral Recital Series, where students are given the opportunity to perform a concerto movement or other arrangement with a full orchestra!  Four studio pianists participated playing music by Noona, Vandall, and Mozart.  What a fun way to celebrate a lot of hard work and love of music with friends and family!  Well done, all!

Tristan takes a bow after a sparkling performance of the finale to Vandall’s Concerto in G:

Noelle poses elegantly at the piano after the concert:

All the performers for the evening, including our own Tristan, Maggie, Noelle, and Mary Boyde.  Congratulations!

Meet the Great Pianists: Vladimir Horowitz

The Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) is a true legend, and his name is forever synonymous with the consummate piano virtuoso.  He electrified his audiences with his stupendous technique and his remarkable ability to draw out the tonal color of the piano.  At his best he was without peer, but he was also a nervous performer, and some of his performances are indeed messy. He withdrew from the stage on numerous occasions, though ultimately he enjoyed a twilight performing career into his eighties, when his playing was noted more for color, charm, and finesse than for the incredible bravura of his younger years.

After one of his longest absences from the concert stage, Horowitz made a historic return in 1965 with a monumental recital in Carnegie Hall. The video excerpt above is his performance of two little Scarlatti sonatas that he played as encores at that concert. His emotional intensity, technical ease, and sense of pianistic color, as well as his sheer delight in performing are all apparent. He made this underappreciated music spring to life with grace and color. This particular concert is etched into my musical memory because my sixth grade teacher gave me the recording of this concert and it was one of a handful of treasured vinyl recordings that I had growing up (mind you, this was long before the days of the internet!)

Below a recording of 75-year old Horowitz playing one of his signature pieces–the complex and passionate Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto–with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra: